Cozy Harbor Inlet, 11"x14" oil on canvas panel
Have you ever wondered what makes a painting good? And I’m not talking about whether you like the painting or not, because that may be more about your connection with the subject than the quality of the work. If the subject means something to you, you're more likely to love the painting. But what if you want to make sure that it really is a quality painting before you buy it, or if you’re painting it, before you declare it finished?
On the left, a neutral dark knife painting, on the right a light bright boat painting, hopefully both with solid compositions
There are lots of aspects to a painting: the subject matter, the color scheme, abstract versus realistic, the overall lightness or darkness (which affects the mood of the work), the level of detail, the medium, the type of paint application (for oil and acrylic, think brush versus knife), etc. All of these things are about style.
Cozy Harbor Inlet - underpainting and finished painting
But what about quality? To my mind the most important thing a good painting has is a strong composition, and that composition is made up of two things: drawing and values. The drawing delineates the edges of shapes. And the value of each shape and how they fit together make up the composition. You could also call it the design. You might like one color scheme over another, but if you see two paintings with the same subject and color scheme, and one has a stronger composition, I’ll bet you’ll like that one better.
Seal Bay Ccmplements, thumbnail and 5"x7" oil on gessobord
So how does an artist create a solid composition? It’s easiest to do that at the start, on a piece of paper, in monochrome. It's called a thumbnail, and is almost always a lot smaller then the intended painting. Most good paintings that are not abstract are started this way. Abstract paintings can be as well, or the composition can come about organically during the process. But the composition still needs to be strong for the painting to be appealing.
Pears in Blue - 6"x6" oil on canvas board, note the pink underpainting
A surefire way to make sure that the original composition doesn’t get lost as color and detail are added to the work, is to create a value underpainting on the canvas first. This is basically a value map. Traditionally these were called grisailles, gris is gray in French, since they were often done in gray tones for engravings. Today painters create grisailles in different colors, some very bright. Little bits of the grisaille often show through, giving a bit of pizzaz.
Apples in monochrome with dabs of paint to make sure the values of the color layer are correct
It can be hard to create the intended value once you start to mix paint for the colors you want to use in your painting. The value roadmap is super helpful for this. Once you think you have the color mixed to the right value, you can put a spot of it on top of the underpainted canvas. Then squint. When you squint, you loose the color in your vision. If the color dab is too dark or light you’ll be able to see it and you can adjust your mixture and try it again (see above). It’s also a lot harder to loose your drawing, when it is actually a value map of shapes rather than lines. The value underpainting, value map, or grisaille is a wonderful tool for the painter.
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.